Book Review: Three Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair (1964)


(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1964 edition)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was a mainstay of the major pulp magazines and maintained a prolific career from 1946 to the late 60s (between the 70s and early 80s she  produced only one novel and a handful of stories).  Previously, I found myself disenchanted with her work as I struggled through the Wicca-inspired ramblings of Sign of the Labrys (1963).  However, I thought I would give her short fiction a try and snagged a copy of the 1964 Ace Double #M-105 that contained her collection Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) and her best known novel Message from the Eocene (1964) (which I might read sometime in the future).

Three Worlds of Futurity contains five stories from her most prolific period—the late 40s-early 60s.  Although the majority do not rise above their fellow pulp ilk, “The Rages” (variant title “The Rations of Tantalus” 1954, revised 1964) shows a measured and incisive feminist inspired vision and the unusual subject matter of “Roberta” (1962) suggests St. Clair’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects.  Most of the stories contain evocative imagery although the delivery rarely transfixes.  Also, although most of the main characters in St. Clair’s stories are men, women scientists and pilots (etc) populate the pages.  I suspect one could make a case that her characters do not fit neatly into the pulp mode.

Somewhat recommended for fans of pulp (of which I am obviously not).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The Everlasting Food” (1950), novelette 2.5/5 (Bad):  Published originally in Thrilling Wonder Stories, “The Everlasting Food” is a mostly forgettable story with some intriguing, and turbulent imagery.  Richard Dekker, Earth-born, employed as a oceanographer on Venus chooses a controversial surgery to save his native Venusian (an “almost-mytheical Sanedrin”) wife Pamir Dekker.  The result is catastrophic for Pamir loses her “Seeing” (6) ability.  Of course, as is often the case with telepathy in pulp SF/F, the ability to the non-telepathic is beyond basic comprehension (7).  Initially all seems well, Pamir smiles (an empty smile) but claims she no longer needs to eat.  Soon Pamir runs away with their half-Venusian son.  The story soon devolves into a chaotic quest to find the boy.  Standard pulp fair with little to distinguish it from its dime-a-dozen Thrilling Wonder Stories brethren.


(Uncredited cover for the December 1950 issue, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr.)

“Idris’ Pig” (variant title: “The Sacred Martian Pig”) (1949), novella, 3/5 (Average): Published originally in Startling Stories, “Idris’ Pig” tells a comical story of a mostly immobile unusual pig-like creature with a rank smell…  George, on his friend’s death bed, is bequeathed the object and the mission of its original courier: “he was greeted by a fishy smell and a feeble oink.  Inside was a small blue animal, some twenty centimeters long, regarded him comatosely” (43).  This creature with its comatose gaze soon embroils George in an elaborate plot involving Martian cults and general mayhem.  Silly and outrageous, “Idris’ Pig” is very much what you’d expect from a late 40s pulp story.

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(Earle Bergey’s cover for the July 1949 issue, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr.)

“The Rages” (variant title: “The Rations of Tantalus”) (1954) novelette, 4/5 (Good): First published in Fantastic Universe, “The Rages” is by far the best story in the collection.  Although the premise is a standard one—future over-medicated world—St. Clair’s measured way telling, paranoid undercurrents, and human-centered vision make it worthwhile.  Harvy and his wife Mara lead a chaste life—i.e. “they had lain side by side for nearly a thousand nights and, except for a handful of times in the first years of their marriage, nothing had ever happened” (76)—controlled by drugs.  Harvy, addicted completely to euphoria pills, finds himself excited by his wife, not for her attractiveness, but as her “tunic was the exact shade” of his pills (79).

The state claims the euphoria pills are completely safe and necessary to prevent rages.  However, lab experiments on rats and the mental state of city’s hostels occupants indicate the devastating damage caused by the “final rage.”  Harvy spends his time fantasizing about increased allotments of pills however a sequence of events cause him to question their effects.  Does he have the willpower to overcome his addiction or will he too turn into a twitching wreck on the hostel floor…

There’s more to “The Rages” than the ubiquitous drugs are dangerous message.  Drugs do not only create non-sexual states of pleasure that detached society from the importance of sex but are also used to prevent menstruation (and odor and sweat).  Drugs are powerful means to control women.  However, St. Clair is quick to point out that Harvy himself is the one who must be controlled, his eventual lusts almost cause him to rape another woman.  “The Rages” is the most trenchant of St. Clair’s pulp stories I have encountered.  Recommended.

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(Alex Schomburg’s cover for the July 1954 issue, ed. Leo Margulies)

“Roberta”  (1962) short story, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good):  First published in Galaxy Magazine, “Roberta” is a disturbing story of a man from Vega named Mr. Dlag who comes to Earth collect “imitation things” (116).

That was what interested me most, you know, when I came to Earth—realizing how many Earth things were imitations.  Insects that imitate other insects.  Plants that imitate other plants.  Plants that imitate plants.  Plants that imitate rocks.  And half your your artifacts imitate other things.  It’s amazing.  There are almost no imitation things on Needr, my home.” (116)

And the “imitation thing” in this case is Roberta, who used to be Robert.  Mr. Dlag paid for Robert’s sex change so he could have her in his collection.  And Roberta, who constantly talks her to her “male” predecessor,  is compelled to kill the collector.  Remember, this is the 1960s treatment of transgender topics…  I am not sure whether this is a positive, or negative portrayal, or somewhere in-between.  For example the above passage seems to indicate that such “imitations” (obviously not the word we would use today), although occurring in life do not replace the  original state.  But then again, St. Clair puts those words in the mouth of an alien.  And, the story follows this format as Roberta talks constantly with Robert.  As a story, the idea of a collector looking for a transgendered individual disturbs.  I do not know what to make of it.

Recommended for scholars studying gender and transgender topics in SF.


(Virgil Finlay’s cover for the October 1962 issue, ed. Frederik Pohl)

“The Island of the Hands” (variant title: “Island of the Hands”) (1952) short story, 3/5 (Average):  First published in Weird Tales, “The Island of the Hands” is a story of obsession.  Dirk compulsively searches for his wife, who disappeared while talking to him on the radio on her solo flight across an ocean.  The search and rescue expedition encounters an island where a simulacrum of Dirk’s wife, with subtle differences, resides.  Rather, the simulacrum is his projection of what he wished his wife looked like… All the characters are soon transfixed by the Island of Hands and its miraculous powers.  But, will Dirk still be able to find his wife?  A fun story, with some cool images, that moves in all the right directions.


(Virgil Finlay’s cover for the September 1952 edition, ed. Dorothy Mcllwraith)

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26 thoughts on “Book Review: Three Worlds of Futurity, Margaret St. Clair (1964)

  1. Agent of the Unknown, published in 1956, is another important Margaret St. Clair novel because of the ways in which it deconstructs the competent man trope prevalent in many American sf novels of the 50s.

      • It is a fascinating piece. You struggle to identify whether it is pro/anti/or neutral re: transsexualism (transgender not being even a word in 1962), but I think it is all of them at once.

        There is a basic wrongness to Robert, that he recognized and hoped he might address by becoming Roberta. And yet, try as she might, Roberta cannot completely excise Robert. For she can never be not-Robert.

        Roberta is progressive (for 1962) in that it recognizes that one can feel a basic wrongness with their assigned gender, but it is unflattering to transsexualism in that it suggests that the feeling of wrongness is a kind of insanity. Then again, Roberta is progressive in that it brings up the topic of transsexualism at all… this is the kind of story that might have come out during Venture‘s short-lived tenure.

        One could make the argument that Roberta is only tangentially a story of transsexualism — rather, Robert was insane, and self-hating, and Dlag’s push at sexual reassignment surgery was sold as a way to rid him of the parts of himself he didn’t like.

        And, of course, while we may find fault in a story for not conforming to our present state of enlightenment, we can appreciate that, for it’s time*, it was something remarkable. Sort of like how Pepino in The Real McCoys was not the most flattering Hispanic portrayal, but it was far better than the virtual nonexistence of Hispanic roles prior.

  2. I owned this Ace Double for years! I read it two or three times but don’t really recall much about it. Reading your review, I believe I liked Idris’ Pig and The Island of the Hands most. And Message from the Eocene on the reverse.
    Actually, I probably kept it for so long for the cover; the ultra modern jetboat becalmed on a red ocean…

  3. Pingback: The Women Science Fiction Fans Don’t See | Cora Buhlert

  4. It’s neat to notice that the issue of Fantastic Universe featuring “The Rations of Tantalus” had another St. Clair story, one of her best known, but under her “Idris Seabright” pseudonym: “Short in the Chest”. (It is the only Seabright story not to first appear in F&SF.)

    I read this book a few years ago (on the plane heading to the Worldcon in Spokane) and I liked it a bit more than you did, on the whole, partly because I have a high tolerance for silly pulp like “Idris’ Pig”. And for what it’s worth, I thought “Roberta” was pretty transphobic … probably not surprising for a story from the early ’60s.

    • I struggle mightily with silly pulp. The only way I can get through it all is go into my “historian mode” (I mean, I read for my PhD a bunch of medieval monks paraphrasing other monks paraphrasing other monks butchering dull theological texts about the trinity) and tell myself that it’s a “historical object” and a “primary source” (hah).

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